The Bulletin

Capitol Police plan to test AI-powered weapon detection scanners

By: - July 17, 2019 7:55 am

A rendering of the weapon detection scanners Capitol Police plan to test next year. (Liberty Defense)

Under rules set by lawmakers, anyone with a concealed carry permit can bring a gun into the state Capitol. And lots of people do, as anyone who was around for last week’s special session on gun legislation undoubtedly noticed.

That makes the Capitol Square complex a prime location to test a radio-wave powered scanner developed by MIT that relies on artificial intelligence developed to detect concealed weapons, according to Capitol Police and the company developing the technology.

“We’ll have targets of opportunity,” said Bill Riker, CEO of Liberty Defense, though he added that the decision to approach Virginia had more to do with relationships with Capitol Police and the state’s business friendly reputation.

The company’s scanners look a bit like the theft detection devices stationed by the doors of retail outlets. They use radio waves to develop a 3D image of everyone entering and exiting. AI-powered software then analyzes those images in an attempt to detect whether the person is carrying a weapon, be it metallic, plastic, a bomb or a suicide vest.

The test, which will take place early next year and last about a week, comes as companies rush an array of security devices to market in response to growing concern over mass shootings and government officials weigh whether the specialized technology is worth the cost.

Lawmakers have rejected legislation in past years that required all new school buildings be constructed with integrated gun-shot detection systems, citing the cost.

Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, introduced similar legislation as part of the special session on gun control. His bill goes further, also requiring technology with an “artificial intelligence platform that detects exposed guns or knives at main building access points” be installed in all new or renovated schools and government buildings.

Like all the other legislation submitted, it’s been referred to the State Crime Commission for study.

The test of Liberty Defense’s product will not cost the state any money. The company says it also has an agreement to test its products at shopping malls, a hockey stadium in Vancouver and a soccer stadium in Germany.

And the company has signed an agreement with the attorney general of Utah, where the local chapter of American Civil Liberties Union has raised privacy concerns, saying in a statement that, “People attending sporting events, festivals, and school campuses in Utah didn’t sign up to be guinea pigs to find defects in a private company’s surveillance system.”

Liberty says the technology is less invasive (and less expensive) than airport scanners, doesn’t generate images of personal anatomy and doesn’t use any facial recognition technology.

Riker says his company wants to get a sense of how its product works in a busy environment and to collect feedback from the police departments and security companies that will use it.

Capitol Police Chief Steve Pike, meanwhile, says he’s interested to get an up-close look at how new detection technologies might fit in with his department’s existing security procedures.

He imagined a scenario in which the scanners are linked to existing security systems to, say, lock a door in a vestibule if they detect a weapon as someone enters. “When you look at Virginia Beach in that scenario … things change in how that situation is managed,” he said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.